Are You With Us? Secretary
By Ryan Mazie
September 24, 2012

Have you ever heard of sexual harassment?

I find it strange how there is something inherently shocking when Hollywood releases a film about sex. While we have no problem seeing heads bloodily blown off, a little cleavage turns into a national controversy. However, I think things have lightened up since 2002 when the Maggie Gyllenhaal BDSM-themed Secretary hit screens, promoted by a brilliant poster of a skirted woman, bending over, grabbing her ankles. I mean, last year the number one song on top of the Billboard Hot 100 was Rihanna’s "S&M", featuing the chanting chorus, “Sticks and stones might break my bones, but chains and whips excite me.” So where does this leave Secretary, a film that the director made in hopes to normalize the perception of BDSM in a culture where it is already accepted less than a decade later? Well, that’s what I wanted to find out.

Starring in this week’s inspirational teacher drama Won’t Back Down (aka, the furthest thing away from Secretary), Maggie Gyllenhaal broke out as a star only eight years ago in this surprisingly tame movie touching upon the subject of rough eroticism (Gyllenhaal also starred in this summer’s under seen comedy about the invention of the vibrator, Hysteria).

Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, a timid young woman recently released from a mental hospital for self-harm (she is a cutter). Looking for the same daily complacency she was used to in the hospital, Lee sets out to be a secretary for the job’s mind numbing nature of typing and repetition. However, nothing is typical at Mr. Grey’s (Fifty Shades of Grey????; played by James Spader) law firm office. With a volatile temper and a penchant for barking out ridiculous tasks with demeaning criticism, Grey becomes fixated with Lee’s wholly submissive behavior.

Parlaying the rush of excitement Lee gets from the pain of cutting into the pain of S&M, the lawyer and the secretary begin an emotionally tumultuous romance where spanks substitute for kisses.

Under the guidance of director Steven Shainberg, from a script by Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary impressively hits all of the right notes to be a comedy. Shainberg shows little nudity for the most part, using the audience’s imagination to do most of the work. However, I was blown away by how fine-tuned the tone of the film is. For example, a spanking scene between Grey and Lee that only shows his and her facial expressions still manages to feel steamy. While potentially awkward, the talented cast and crew hit the extremely small target right on the bull’s-eye, wringing laughs when wanting to be funny (which is often) and making eyebrows raise when wanting to be sexy (which is not as often as you’d expect given the va va voom poster).

Displaying great talent, I was surprised to see Shainberg’s resume only containing one more film on it; the 2006 Nicole Kidman-Robert Downey Jr. flop, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (which screenwriter Wilson also scripted in addition to 2009’s steamy and stupid escort thriller Chloe).

Gyllenhaal’s star rose exponentially after Secretary and it is not at all hard to see why. She delivered a winning performance that I was surprised to see not recognized at the Academy Awards (her spot likely went to Diane Lane, who also earned lauds for showing skin in the affair thriller, Unfaithful). Nominated for a Golden Globe, Gyllenhaal plays timid extremely well, still managing to keep a spark of life in her character to make her interesting and not annoyingly submissive. Baring as much soul as skin, Gyllenhaal manages to make sense out of a character who, well... is portrayed as not being able to make sense out of herself, thus going to a mental institution for cutting herself.

Spader (pre-Boston Legal) plays quirky just as well, being the dominating force in the kinky relationship. While a fine protagonist/antagonist, Spader never wows in the same sense as Gyllenhaal, who brings a strange normalcy to the BDSM situation.

Debuting in Sundance during January in 2002, it wasn’t until September that the film was released by Lionsgate (back when they released edgy awards bait, not Saw and Tyler Perry movies). Opening in 11 theaters with a high per theater average, Secretary was playing in 149 theaters by week four. While tepid, the film stuck around, netting a solid $4 million over time ($5.6 million today).

Revolving around the themes of S&M, Secretary at its core is a romantic dramedy, which makes it still with us. Even though the idea of whips and leather are seen more in today’s TV (anyone see the latest episode of True Blood?) and movies, there is still something alerting yet chuckle-worthy in the film’s opening shot of Gyllenhaal doing secretarial work while in bondage gear. The tight script is never too offensive or too funny, having most of the humor come from the kinky behavior. The characters do not necessarily see S&M as fun, but as a means to an end.

Jeremy Davies serves as Lee’s boyfriend who leads a life of (sexual) normalcy. While underwritten compared to Lee and Grey, it allows the audience to see how a little kink while folding laundry isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Critics by and large enjoyed Secretary. It scores a solid 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some reviewers found the humor too subtle. My biggest complaint (among other critics) is that the ending takes too far of a tonal verve to work. However, everyone agrees that Gyllenhaal brought something special to the role.

Unique and different, Secretary manages to show more heart than most mainstream romantic films nowadays that take on the themes of S&M. To quote the same Rihanna song I opened with, “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it.” While more PG than R, Secretary definitely has fun with being naughty.

Verdict: With Us
8 out of 10